The Pandemic of Under Stimulation
Feeling will never be obsolete.
I could barely get out of bed and when I did I couldn’t stand up straight. When I tried to it felt as if I was tearing out a thousand stitches running the length of my small intestine. It took my breath away and it was only getting worse. Earlier in the day my Mom had come and sat on the edge of my bed and in her characteristic no-nonsense way leveled a biting question at me. “What are you going to do? If this keeps up you won’t be able to hold a full-time job. There’s a very real chance you’ll end up on disability.” That’s not something an 18-year-old kid with a head full of dreams wants to hear from his mother.
Over the following weeks, I would be diagnosed with a birth defect that I never knew I had. In fact, I hadn’t had any serious issues until I was about 15 years old other than being lactose intolerant. My pyloric sphincter has zero functionality. The pyloric sphincter is the valve at the bottom of your stomach that acts as the gatekeeper for the rest of the digestive tract. It keeps food in the stomach to be broken down by the acid as well as acting as a subdivider to keep the food from funneling into the intestines too quickly. In the words of my friend Brick, “So it’s basically like your insides are covered in Vaseline…” followed by a hand gesture that looked like a bobsled sliding down the track.
My personal issue with this is that my digestive tract became extremely sensitized to my food not being perfectly within the “goldilocks zone” of digestion and nutritional content. Meaning if it came in too quickly, it wasn’t nourishing, or I did anything physically active too soon after eating my entire digestive tract would spasm. The smooth muscle that runs the length of my digestive tract would contract at maximum force. It would feel as if a giant raccoon was trying to turn me inside out starting with my guts. I would be doubled over in seconds, unable to move and barely able to breathe. It’s an odd feeling when your body betrays you like that. One moment I could be squatting double my bodyweight for reps and then the next I had to rest to make it up the stairs in my home.
The doctors told me stress was the culprit that I needed to manage it and sent me on my way with a bottle of muscle relaxers and some opioids.
“Thanks, guys you really outdid yourselves this time.”
There was something wrong with their assessment though they told me stress was the issue. But I had learned for myself amid my personal hell that I could find relief in the gym. As long as I didn’t eat within an hour of exercise I could push myself both physically and mentally for a good two hours without any issues. Furthermore, I would be rewarded with another couple of hours post-workout of symptom-free bliss.
But how could this be?
Exercise is stress. It always has been and it always will be and it’s not like I was walking around planet fitness with ten-pound dumbbells or prancing on an elliptical while watching Jersey Shore. I was training with intense desperation. I was just a kid, and a small one at that, but even the most grizzled gym rats respected the work ethic I consistently demonstrated.
Why was I able to intentionally push myself within a hair’s breadth of exhaustion and be rewarded with a few hours of normalcy? When in contrast the medical community told me that I needed to shut myself off from the world and never do anything that pushed me beyond the iron boundaries of my comfort zone? Over the years I’ve come to find that they along with many of their contemporary homo sapiens have completely discounted the power of physical experience and the SENSATIONS that accompany them. I was told to live in a tensionless state of lukewarm homogeneity, what would that have done for me?
I can tell you exactly what it would’ve done.
It would’ve killed me.
I know because that’s the type of living I was doing when I started having issues. Sure, I had always had the birth defect but it had never been a problem. The problem only manifested itself as I matured and shifted away from the perpetually active lifestyle of a child and morphed into adulthood. It didn’t help that social media had exploded onto the scene just as I was entering my trial by fire. I could wallow in self-pity in my parents’ basement while communicating with my friends and living vicariously through the curated feeds of everyone else’s lives. I could swim in the perpetual torrent of dopamine without ever earning any of it.
Once I realized my lifestyle was poisoning me my birth defect transformed from my greatest trial into my saving grace. I realized that I had become so disconnected from the internal environment of my body that it had begun eating itself alive. I had been playing a chess match against my body and in such a scenario losing is the only option. So, I stepped away from the chessboard and away from the path of least resistance and into the contrary current.
That’s where I found myself. I found myself in the gym, the cold showers, the mountains, the saunas, the adventure races, and the ice baths. I only found myself in the places I had pushed my body to the point that it was forced to push back and scream, “I’m still here!”
I had been so under-stimulated and under-challenged physically that my body had essentially given up. Our lives have become so easy in our modernized world that we have to purposefully apply stress to keep ourselves alive, that’s the only reason we exercise. We’re increasingly seeing though that a few minutes of traditional exercise isn’t enough. Thirty minutes a day on the treadmill isn’t enough to counteract the climate-controlled, artificially lit, sedentary lifestyle of 2020. I was lucky to have the experiences I had when I had them. I can’t imagine the level of mental and physical illness I would be dealing with now 12 years later had I followed the conventional wisdom at the time.
That’s my story but what does it mean for you?
Other than being an interesting anecdote what can you do today? What can you apply to your life to move out from beneath your own rock of under-stimulated modern life?
The premise is simple, replicate environments that stimulate a survival response. In other words, you need to do things that force adaptation and facilitate survival. This gives your body something to fight against rather than turning on itself.
Here are a few places you can get started.
Apnea work- Apnea work has the lowest barrier to entry, really all you need is a set of lungs and the determination to take ownership of your own health. What is apnea work? It literally means to work without breathing. I know that can sound a little bit intimidating and that’s ok. The reason it’s so valuable though is because apnea work allows you to SAFELY spend time with higher levels of CO2 or carbon dioxide in your blood. This is important because CO2 is the stress messenger of the body. It tells your nervous system when it’s in danger, it’s the cue for panic, and it regulates the lens your nervous system is seeing the lens through. If you have a very low tolerance to CO2 then your experience will be significantly more stressful and tinged with panic than it needs to be. A good place to start with this is to do apnea walks.
Do the following for 5 rounds
Take three normal breaths and on the third breath hold on an exhale and walk as far as you possibly can while holding the exhale. When you have to breathe stop walking, take three breaths, and repeat the process for a total of five rounds.
Cold exposure- This modality has the second-lowest barrier of entry. Unless you live near the equator cold showers will do the trick. Start with your normal warm shower and when you’re finished turn the water to cold and stay in for thirty seconds. If that’s too intense for you start with just your hands and feet and work up from there. Aim for two minutes per day and getting your whole body in the cold and staying relaxed in the process. If you want to go further down this rabbit hole you can go with cold water immersion and rig up an ice tub. You can convert a chest freezer, buy a stock tank and fill it with ice, or purchase a cold tub. A converted chest freezer is by far the cheapest way to go long term. The idea here is the same as the shower however since the intensity is so much higher you can get the same benefits at a much smaller dose. Two-three minutes per week will do the trick. As an added bonus here cold exposure has been shown to significantly increase immune function and there’s a plethora of scientific literature to back it up.
Heat exposure- The final modality we will touch upon today is heat exposure. The most common method of training heat exposure is via a sauna bath. Heat exposure is by far the most thoroughly studied method on this list, however, not everyone has access to a sauna and that’s what it’s at the bottom of the list. Sauna bathing releases something called heat shock proteins. These proteins act as little bulletproof vests for your DNA. Every time one of your cells divides and creates a new cell a bit of the genetic material is snipped off, this is the basis for much of what we consider aging. When we’re young this isn’t a problem because we have genetic material to spare. As we age though we run out of that extra material and the replication process begins to degrade. Heat shock proteins prevent this snipping.
If you do have access to a sauna the best time to use it is immediately after exercising, which is what I do. The reason for this is not only because of the heat shock proteins mentioned above but also because heat exposure increases your IGF-1 output and reduces protein degradation. In English, that means heat exposure optimizes hormones that improve body composition as well as help you to build muscle. A good place to start is getting in the sauna immediately post-workout for 20–30 minutes at as high of a temperature as you’re able to handle. Studies have shown benefits of staying in for up to two hours so if you have nothing better to do spending time sweating bullets is a good option. Be sure to listen to your body in the sauna though if you begin to feel dizzy, or claustrophobic then it’s time to get out.
To quickly recap:
Stress isn’t the enemy; your comfort zone is and there are so many things you can do to step out of your comfort zone. Doing so physically literally saved my life and I believe that those who are willing to step outside of their comfort zones will find a new and beautiful world waiting for them.